For Sylvia

June 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

“They must often change,
who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

“It’s my first time to be truly amazed by visual teaching since I discovered mind mapping ten years ago…!!”

This post is inspired by Sylvia Guinan, who wrote the line above on Facebook, about Language Garden.

Well, as you can imagine, such a comment sent tingles to my toes. I know how she feels though, because, by heavens! I remember to this day my first encounter with mind maps too.

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People coming to The Mind Map Book for the first time are, through perhaps years of study with solely linear texts, mostly unaware of non-linear representations of knowledge. The book does a clever thing: it makes you commit yourself to your old ways, ingrained habits, and then voilà! it reveals to you another, unexpected, and highly impressive, artistic, holistic alternative.

I fell for it. It said: “In two minutes, write down everything you can about Space Travel.”

I took up the challenge, my pen a blur, the words barely legible as I attempted to put down all I could summon up before the second-hand ticked round twice.

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I turned the page, as it said, and was presented with a mind map, another way of writing, presenting, flowing. With the main topics branching off from the central idea, you can jump back and forth between ideas, and build up a complete picture. This method smashed to smithereens the myth I had unwittingly adhered to that learning starts at the beginning and stops at the end.

I loved their organic nature, the way they grew and connected. I was smitten. Thence, via the Lexical Approach, which my new rap buddy Jason Levine loves too, to language plants. So how about making a mind map, using the plant maker if you wish (just click on the blank page and start typing), on a subject of your choosing? Here’s mine, retracing those original steps which changed my vision forever.

Make me a Mind Map

Roll up, roll up!

June 13, 2012 § 4 Comments

“Tell me and I will forget,
show me and I may remember,
involve me and I will understand.”

You may have already heard this saying from Confucius. I think many, most of us as teachers would subscribe to it, and recognise it in aspects of our teaching.

It’s one of the language plants in the Introduction to the Free Resources, which you can get by simply signing up here:

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Below is the first page of the free resources. Six titles, each just a page with a little language plant and a bit of explanation. If you look closely, you can see Confucius sitting patiently waiting for you.

Hold on, Confucius, I’m coming!

Then there’s the Grammar course. Again, nice and interactive, involving the learners. The image below is the main page, with coloured leaves representing the different word classes. (In all the language plants I make, nouns are blue, verbs red etc.)

I fancy having some colourful grammar lessons

Finally, there’s a sample of six different lessons, or units, each with about 10 activities, where you can watch and listen to the words growing, do puzzles and painting activities (just the words, and you won’t get your nice clothes dirty), and much more. Each unit has 2 or 3 hours’ work. Well, it’s not so much work, more like play. But serious play. Play work.

I want to play! I mean work.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old;
we grow old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw

The simple things in life

June 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

“It is always the simple
that produces the marvellous.”
Amelia Barr

As they say, it’s the simple things in life that bring pleasure.

Language plants are simple things really, just bending and branching and wafting in the breeze. But some people think they’re marvellous. Here’s an email I got recently, with just a couple of changes to keep their identity secret.

“Dear David,

I would be writing this, even if we hadn’t met a few days ago. I was going through my file looking for bits and bobs, and I came across your business card. From there to your website. And it’s brilliant.

The product is just so engaging, and the story of you learning Luo took me back 12 years to my time in SE Asia where I was learning Lao, and trying to do similar things with Post-its on the wall of my wooden stilt house. The organic links and paths appeal so strongly.

To the same degree I was impressed with the site itself. Simple. Straightforward. And an interactive experience in itself, rather than mere information-giving. I love the personal testimony of teachers, and the videos of Language Garden in action.

My son is 5 years old, and beginning to feel his way into the world of reading and writing. This would be such a fun activity for him to play around with. Have you considered working with Early Years practitioners and developing the product for this area? And here I mean for native speakers. I might show it to his teacher and see what she thinks. Other ideas that came to me while I was browsing – specific areas such as Academic Writing, Business English (expanding upon the ‘Project Activity’), and other ESP areas.

Forgive my suggestions. I’m sure they are things you’ve explored already. It’s just that I tend to get excited about things like this, and I’m still in my first hour of knowing Language Garden.”

Lovely, don’t you think?

If you’d like to try a really quick but wonderful activity, just click here. It’s based on the poem and language plant below, one of my favourites, by Rabindraneth Tajore.

“The animal on the land is noisy,
the fish in the air is silent,
the bird in the air is singing.
But man has in him
the noise of the earth,
the silence of the sea
and the music of the air.”
Rabindraneth Tajore

Dogme and Game Theory

May 17, 2012 § 19 Comments

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
and heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.”
William Blake

I remember when I was young, play tig in the playground at school, I don’t know what you call it, it would be nice to find out, just the game where you’re “on” and you chase after the others till you catch one, then they’re on, and they chase after you, ahh, happy days, once while playing this I remember getting sucked into a vortex of infinity.

I was running away, towards and then behind the toilet block. Hidden from view, I could carry on running all the way round, hoping to outrun my chaser, but I realised the chaser could be clever, and veer off to the left to head me off at the other side as I reappeared, literally running into his arms and being caught. You know the situation, I’m sure. So you stop, don’t you, and double back. But they can be smart too, knowing you’ll do this, so they carry on in the original direction. So you better carry on too. Only they’ll work this out, and head you off. In another universe, I’m still stuck there, not knowing which way to run.

The science of trying to work out what your opponent will do in such situations, or “games”, and then using this knowledge to influence your own behaviour, is called Game Theory. It’s not just concerned with trivialities. Far from it; in fact, its theories are applied across all human endeavours. The nuclear arms race between the US and USSR was one such game where each kept on building up their arsenals far beyond the point of oblivion. Such colossal spending trying to keep up was a major factor in the collapse of communism.

In ELT, publishers operate in much the same way, grafting on every conceivable feature to their new coursebook, such that they have workbooks and ebooks and websites and cds and dvds. Teachers can get sucked into the game inadvertently, judging the quality of a resource simply by how many shopping trolleys they need to get between classrooms.

Scott says “Stop! Stop playing this foolish game.” The only winners are the arms manufacturers. In a recent post of his, F is for Fractal, we see the possibilities and joys of working with and exploring a short text.

Of course, if we are going to limit the amount of materials we use in class, the impact and resourcefulness of the ones we do choose should shine brightly.

That’s what Language Garden is committed to doing at

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought,
but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Albert Einstein

Money Talks

May 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

“I’m not a driven businessman,
but a driven artist.
I never think about money.
Beautiful things make money.”
Lord Acton

My diary shows two Skype sessions booked for today. I’ve just had the first, with a lovely chap called Nick Robinson. If you’re a budding author in search of a publisher, his fantastic website can help.

I met Nick last year at IATEFL, when I introduced him to the organic materials growing at the Language Garden stand. Then, a month or so ago, he connected with me on LinkedIn, although he didn’t remember me. My name came up as a suggestion and he invited me. The fact that he couldn’t place my name or face didn’t keep me awake at night.

But when I gave him the link to language garden, the memories came flooding back and he was more than pleased to talk. If he hadn’t remembered language plants, that certainly would have kept me awake. But of course, language plants are memorable. A chunk of linear text doesn’t leave a lasting impression, whereas a picture speaks a thousand words, and a picture made with words, how many does that speak? They certainly get learners talking.

And teachers. All the time, teachers tell me how they’ve told colleagues about language garden. They share their stories about their classes with strangers next to them in seminars, letting them know about the resource which so many of their learners love. It’s wonderful to hear, and if you have done this, I thank you sincerely.

But perhaps you’d like more than just thanks. Well, the Language Garden distribution system is now operational, a system that allows anyone – teachers, learners, school owners, publishers and resellers (and I’m working with all) to earn from spreading the word.

It’s simple. Once you’re set up as a distributor, you just make yourself a promotion code and let those you come across know. If they buy, you earn from the sale.

My second Skype meeting later this evening is with just one such teacher. She attends conferences, and gives talks and presentations, much like many of you, and is pleased to associate herself with Language Garden following the successes she has had with her own learners.

So if this speaks to you, please watch the 8 minute video below. Maybe then DM me on twitter @DavidWarr, and we can arrange a meeting on Skype 🙂

The Birds and the Bees

April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Spring is the time of plans and projects.”
Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina

Buoyed with developments with Language Garden, the new distributor system that allows anyone anywhere to sell, the new lesson log ins, the new referral system, I was up with the lark. Of course, Mr and Mrs Blackbird were already hard at work, making sorties to neighbouring gardens and returning with worms dangling like handlebar moustaches for their scrawny offspring hidden in the variegated ivy.

Feed your chicks here

These aren’t the only birds living rent free in our garden. There are some squatters just a few feet away, blue tits, in a little bird box we kindly put up, continually fluttering back and forth with feathers and fluff. They don’t like sleeping on a hard old floor either.

Meanwhile, lonely bees pop by to taste the tulips, but come the summer, the cotoneaster bush that curls up and around the garden shed will be host to over a hundred. Last summer I counted eight different friendly types, all unfazed (they declined the invitations to crawl along my finger) by my proximity.

Pollinate the flowers here

A few branches are still all but completely bare, but most are now fully adorned with fresh green leaves, and the cherry blossom a few doors down is now proudly pink.

I love this time of year when everyone is doing their bit for life.

You can too, of course. Just click here.

“If you have much, give of your wealth;
if you have little, give of your heart.”
Arabian Proverb

Written all over my face

April 1, 2012 § 6 Comments

“You can fool some of the people all of the time.
And you can fool all of the people some of the time.
But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Abraham Lincoln

I’ve only ever missed one lesson in my EFL career…

“You’ll have to get up really early to fool me!” I’d been saying this to my girlfriend for a few weeks in the build-up to April Fool’s Day, and tomorrow was the big day. I was 1 – 0 up and now I was expecting, hoping for her revenge.

The year before, she’d left for work an hour early. I’d put all the clocks in the flat forward by an hour. Even her watch resting on her bedside table, which she’d grabbed and glared at for final confirmation. The clock in the corner of breakfast telly nearly gave it away. “It’s April Fool, they’ve changed the time for everyone”, I postulated, feigning drowsiness, from under the duvet. Genius. “Well that’s not funny. People could be late for work.” And with that, she left, only to return 15 minutes later. “The roads were too quiet!” she sheepishly grinned.

Despite my goading this time round, she had kindly offered to massage my head as I had a really bad headache. It was soothing, and I enjoyed the liberally applied face cream. There are those points around the body too, aren’t there, that when squeezed, miraculously take the pain away, if only temporarily. There’s that good one right in-between the thumb and first finger.

We were living in Hungary, teaching English in two schools in a small town. It was brilliant fun, and some of my fondest classroom memories are from this time. We’d originally planned to drive all the way from England to Greece in our camper van, but Lake Balaton and the surrounding countryside easily persuaded us to stay. So when she had an early start on April 1st, and then returned with horror in her eyes saying the van had been stolen, well, it was a lame attempt.

But she couldn’t carry on the ruse. She was laughing too much. “Have you looked in the mirror yet?” I hadn’t.

“The face cream I was using last night was fake tan. It didn’t seem to be working, so I put loads on!”

I scrubbed and scrubbed, but my face remained as bright as a carrot.

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I put my foot down. “Ring the school. Tell them I’m ill.” I only had one lesson that day, so I felt it acceptable. It was the lesson I told you about at the start, the only lesson I’ve ever missed.

“Fool me once. Shame on you.
Fool me twice. Shame on me.”

How to be a Genius (with a cabbage)

February 9, 2012 § 7 Comments

Some nice kind people “liked” my concept fan picture in my last post. This post is about making one, and how to be a genius as well. According to someone or other, if you can think of more than 8 things you can do with a cabbage in 2 minutes, besides cooking and eating it, you’re a genius.

So. Are you? A genius, I mean, not a cabbage. Take up the challenge. You’re allowed some latitude (i.e. wackiness), but the question stands: What can you do with a cabbage (besides cooking and eating it)?

Errr. Ooooh. Hmmmm.

Play football with it.

Good. Another?

Hit someone over the head with it.


Errr. Ooooh. Hmmmm. Eight seems a long way away, doesn’t it!

So let’s use a concept fan.

You said play football with it. Why?

Because it’s round. Round, so it could be a bowling ball if you carve out a few finger holes. Volleyball? Nope, too heavy. Play catch with it. Attach a message to it and roll it down a hill to your friend waiting at the bottom. (There’s no signal, in case you ask).

We said it was heavy, which is why you could hit someone with it. Break a window with it (if you want to burgle a house). Drop it on a rat. Stand on it to reach something at the back of the cupboard.

Heavy. A paperweight. A doorstop, keep a window open with it, one of those elegant sash windows. Drop it in a puddle to splash someone.

It’s green. Mash it up to make face camouflage (when you’re burgling the house). Paint a wall green. Dye your clothes green. Dye your ex’s clothes green.

What about stripping off the leaves? Use one as a fan (not a concept fan). That’s a good idea. But why? Why can a leaf be a fan? What properties does it have that make it a good fan? It’s large and flappy, it catches the wind. OK, so it could be a sail for a toy boat, or a handkerchief. It’s curved, so it could be a hat, or protection from the sun. Curved we said? A spoon for soup. Pick up a spider with it. A pooper-scooper for your dog.

How we doing?

24!! We’ve hardly started! What’s the one above genius-level? Surely they’ll have to invent a new category for us. A scatter-gun approach to generating ideas, the way we often think creative minds work, shooting off all over the place, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Not at all. Far more effective is to be systematically, logically, predictably creative.

Try it with your students! I’m sure they can beat this paltry figure. You could even use the Genius Generator.

Ten Thousand Words

February 7, 2012 § 9 Comments

A picture speaks a thousand words. There are ten pictures here, taken from my notebooks over the last year or two, each representing an important insight for me, mostly in a business context. See if you can match the pictures with the ten definitions below…

Think global, act local. ”Glocal”, the word is, working with lots of people in different countries, making resources with them that suit local needs, and selling through local teachers and business owners.

If you say three things, you say nothing. What’s your core message? You can’t have two priorities.

Some people take up new ideas. They get it, and take the lead. The vast majority of people on the bell-curve look to what others are doing, and follow the crowd. The gulf between these two mentalities is wide. Take note of the feedback from the early adopters, and act on it to make it accessible to the rest.

A book, the Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya sisterhood became a word-of-mouth sensation because the book spoke to the (mainly) female readers, who spoke to each other. People build relationships with each other, a network of support and love. Design a business that allows and encourages this.

Key Performance Indicators. Business terminology really, but for all of us, information is king.

When the goal is fuzzy and a long way away, and the external environment can change, you need to be flexible, have a strategy where you continually strengthen your position. Like in chess.

On the journey, when you make things, products or services maybe, to you these may be just important milestones, things you note as you pass by, keeping your head down. But hang on. To the outside world, these can be worthwhile products in their own right.

That’s a good idea! But don’t stop there. Think. Is it the best? This idea is a way of doing what? What are you trying to achieve? Looking rather like a mind map, you can make a concept fan, where you continually jump back and forth between ideas and concepts.

Do one thing well. Don’t try and do everything. You’ll end up being a jack of all trades, master of none. Take what you’ve got, and make it brilliant. Don’t smother the good idea in blanket of excess. Maximum magic, that’s what you’re after.

The environment always changes. The only constant is constant change. Successful animals, and businesses, are those that evolve to suit the new landscape.


Do you have any wise words you’d like to share? Or pictures that represent them?

A Fresh Ride

January 14, 2012 § 7 Comments

“I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I wanted to be.”
Douglas Adams
“A Hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy”

When I worked in the Alps as a waiter in a 4-star hotel, a guise solely enabling me to go snowboarding at every opportunity, ah snowboarding, what a ride, skimming across the soft fresh glistening powder, weaving in and out of trees and rocks, landing head-first in chest-deep snow and gulping down the mountain air for hardly-existing oxygen as you struggle to dig yourself out, where was I? oh yes, mornings in the hotel were spent clearing the tables after breakfast and setting them for the evening meal. It’s where I learned to fold napkins into swans and fans and the like, seven designs, one for each day of the week.

How annoying, then, when they’d saunter in after a day on the slopes and whip my artwork into their laps without the slightest hint of acknowledgement, let alone admiration.

Hotels would run perfectly if it weren’t for damned guests.

A few years later, having swapped Alpine snow for Atlantic surf, ah surfing, sun, sea and sand, paddle paddle, the wave picks you up and you slide down an ever-shifting slope seeking stability, what a ride, where was I? oh yes, I had also, in my eyes, moved up a rung on the career ladder by working for the British Council in Portugal.

Here, I encountered a teacher with the most extreme and opposite views to mine I had ever heard. I can’t remember which coursebook we were all supposed to be using, but he wanted every level in every centre, twelve or so dotted around the country, to all be doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same lesson at exactly the same time. Order. Precision. Perfection.

Syllabuses would flow perfectly if it weren’t for damned students.

Because people, life, lessons, can’t be planned to the letter. You’re always going to end up somewhere else, somewhere you hadn’t envisaged. It’s not wrong, coz there was never any right, only a pitiful attempt to impose order and feel safe.

Luke said recently:

“Conversation-rich and materials-light (and the implications of pursuing these in the classroom) are not new – but I believe that focusing on emergent language is new, or at least represents a challenge to ELT orthodoxy – and is the most interesting and challenging of the three.”

I agree. Dogme can be a gentle breeze blowing the dust off the coursebook’s pages or a hurricane tearing it from everyone’s clutches entirely. Dogmers describe how exhilarating this ride is. But anyone who laughs at the well-intentioned but ill-informed idiocy of trying to map out a country’s language lessons for a whole year in an afternoon has the spirit of Dogme in them. Because if you do sympathise with such a prescriptive view, then just for starters you’d be missing out on the wonderful drama classes that Luke was part of in Nick Bilbrough’s cosy retreat in Devon.

And so this is where I find myself, making and selling interactive language plants, but with this spirit in me that has been brought into much clearer focus over the last few years, thanks to Teaching Unplugged and the blogs it has spawned.

Especially this third principle, dealing with emergent language.

Because too many teachers and pupils, those who have never heard of Dogme, have said to me: “Can we make our own language plants? Can we add our own words to the ones you’ve made? Can we make our own activities?”.

Reading between the lines, this is what I hear teachers saying:

“We love language plants. The interactive activities have brought a breath of fresh air. We also love creating an environment where learners are encouraged to contribute their own language and their own ideas and can grow and learn in unpredicted and unanticipated ways. Can you marry the two?”

This is the ride I now find myself on.

“You can’t stop the waves,
but you can learn to surf.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn